Seven teams will stand in the Buffalo Sabres’ way of snapping a nine-year playoff drought.
With cross-border travel for NHL teams impossible, the league shifted to a strictly intradivisional schedule for the regular season, and the Sabres were placed in the East Division with the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals.
The Sabres, who open the season Jan. 14 at home against Washington, went a combined 6-9-1 against those teams in 2019-20. How will coach Ralph Krueger and his revamped roster fare during this 56-game season with no fans at most arenas and the challenge of playing during a pandemic with strict health and travel protocols?
The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington and Lance Lysowski discuss in our latest Sabres roundtable:
Q: Do you think the new this new division helps or hurts the Sabres' playoff chances?
MH: I think that the Sabres end up being one of the teams hurt the most by realignment. Because you look at the old Atlantic Division with Detroit and Ottawa, Montreal and Florida, the Sabres were certainly going to be pushing into the top half of that division. Now you essentially get thrust into the Metropolitan Division, plus Boston and minus Carolina. And you're going to need somebody to take a real step back whom you don't expect and the Sabres take a step up. It's a good thing they're not going to see Tampa, but some of these other teams that you look at in this division are going to be huge challenges too.
LL: This definitely hurts. As you pointed out, Mike, I thought the Sabres were going to have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs while playing in the Atlantic. This roster can compete with Florida and Montreal, but there are some veteran teams in this new division that are trying to win the Cup. They have the sort of playoff experience the Sabres lack and only the top four teams are qualifying for the playoffs.
Q: Which team is a candidate to take a step back?
LL: Pittsburgh would be my choice. The Penguins lose goaltender Matt Murray to Ottawa. Their blue line has more changes by adding Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci. What if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can't stay healthy? It's an aging core. I don't like the depth up front. It's a team that doesn’t seem to have an identity, either.
MH: The team that I think might take a step back that you wouldn't expect is Washington. I think the situation and goal with Ilya Samsonov is tough. They're going with the kid after they lost Braden Holtby. I think losing Henrik Lundqvist is not necessarily a huge loss on the ice, but that's a huge loss in the locker room and having a mentor for Samsonov. The Caps have always been on the edge. People forget, during the Stanley Cup year, they were down 2-0 to Columbus in double overtime of Game 3. If they go down 3-0 in that series, they're out in the first round, Barry Trotz is fired and the team is probably broken up.
Why does no one in this division talk about the Islanders? It seems like everyone forgot the Islanders were in the conference finals against Tampa Bay in the bubble.
LL: I was astounded that their odds of winning the division, according to some of these gambling websites, are so low. They have Mathew Barzal and they didn't really lose much this offseason, aside from goalie Thomas Greiss. The blue line is still solid. They have the best coach in the league in Trotz. … It wouldn't shock me at all if they won this division.
MH: And there's going to be some emotion there. This is the last year for the Nassau Coliseum for real this time and you're looking at a brand-new arena coming and that's going to completely transform that franchise even more.
Q: What do you expect Lindy Ruff to bring to the Devils?
MH: I wonder if he's going to offer to let me coach again. That was my first thought. Kidding! But it's a weird combination – Ruff and some young stars in New Jersey. I'm just not sure how that's going to work. How does Ruff translate to Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes? At the same time, when you're talking veterans, how does Ruff translate to P.K. Subban? I don't know exactly where Lindy is going with it. That was a strange hire. I think Lindy wanted to get back in, he wanted to reach a couple of coaching milestones. But to me, the Devils are the eighth-place team in this division on paper at the start of the year.
LL: They have some young forwards who need to learn how to be more responsible away from the puck and Jack Hughes is at the top of that list. I think Lindy will teach the young guys better habits. I just don't think they're strong enough on the back end. … I agree with you that they're going to finish at the bottom. But I want to see what he's able to accomplish.
MH: And the other team in the division that I just don't know what to make of is the Rangers. They're building something, and obviously you add Alexis LaFreniere. Any time you add the No. 1 overall pick, you add a player who most people expect to step right in and play. The Rangers are just a weird team. I've never been completely sold on David Quinn as a coach. I've never really figured out what they've been doing. Now they have finally broken away from Lundqvist and they get the No. 1 overall pick in an incredible stroke of lottery luck, but do they just start out as a middle of the road team trying to squeeze into the top four?
LL: I would think so. It's OK to go young in goal if you have a strong defense corps, but the Rangers are most likely going to have Jack Johnson playing every night. K'Andre Miller is a young guy who will likely end up in the NHL. So, they're not going to be strong on the back end. Young guys such as Lafreniere and Kappo Kakko likely aren't ready to be 20- to 30-goal scorers. I love some of the top-end talent there, but I think the Sabres are the stronger team.
Q: Is this the most difficult division in the NHL?
LL: Yes, how many of these teams can realistically compete for the Stanley Cup? Boston, the Islanders, Philadelphia, and I'm going to put Pittsburgh and Washington in that category based on their résumé and the superstar talent.
MH: You're talking five legitimate teams who think they are starting the season saying, "We have a chance to win the Stanley Cup" in the same division. That's tough. The Sabres were not going to be in a division with five teams thinking Stanley Cup if they were still in the Atlantic.
Q: What is your impression of the Bruins after an unusual offseason?
MH: I've been waiting for the Bruins' window to close. And here we are, lo and behold, in 2019, they're in Game 7 of the Cup final and essentially choking on it because they should have won. They had it at home and didn't beat St. Louis. But age is starting to play a factor. The mileage of all the playoff games is a factor. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand are injured, and I think Zdeno Chara is not the player he was, but he's still a heart and soul guy in that room, if he comes back. If you were going to pass the baton, on that defense, you have Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug, but where does Krug go but to St. Louis to replace Alex Pietrangelo. That's a huge loss for them.
I don't know how much mileage Tuukka Rask has left in goal? He took the mental break out of the bubble, but at some point, they're going to take a step back.
LL: The power play has been their motor in recent seasons. They lost their quarterback with Krug leaving. Who replaces him? This team has been exceptional in drafting and developing players. The next test now is whether they have young defensemen who are ready to seize the opportunity. And the Bruins need to be better at 5 on 5 to remain near the top of the league.
MH: Everybody wants to talk about the Sabres' penalty kill and goaltending and the losing streaks and that's all true, but the biggest reason the Sabres missed the playoffs last year was they went 0-7 against Boston and Tampa. Bottom line, you just can't go 0-7 against the top two teams in your division and have a chance.
Q: How do you think the Sabres stack up against the Flyers, who will be among the favorites to win the division?
MH: Sean Couturier became an elite player last year, became a Selke Trophy guy. Claude Giroux is just consistent year after year after year. The Flyers have started to develop that personality again they've been known for. Tough to play against, lots of offense, strong coaching and you throw Carter Hart in there and he has that Carey Price look to him. He's starting to match the hype with his play. They're now legitimately thinking they could win this division, be a Stanley Cup team.
Q: Do you think it will be difficult for the Sabres to play the same group of teams all season?
MH: I'm concerned. Back in the old days of the Adams Division, you played the Bruins, Leafs, Canadiens and Hartford Whalers and the Quebec Nordiques eight times. But you also played everybody else. I think there's a tremendous risk of a monotony factor, because you're playing seven teams for the entire season in a 31-team league. It might make the Stanley Cup semifinals and Final more interesting, because it'll be the first time those teams have met all year. Does it develop hatred and animosity or do players get bored with it by the second or third game of the series?
LL: This unusual season with all the different challenges will show why you need veterans on a roster. A young team is going to have trouble playing a lot of games in a short amount of time. Travel isn't going to be as exhaustive, but teams are going to need discipline. There's going to need be consistency, to get up for games when there's no fans. That's why the additions of guys like Eric Staal, Taylor Hall and Cody Eakin will be important to help guide the Sabres. You've seen them fall apart under difficult circumstances for years now. This is going to be a significant test.
MH: But boy, what an easy travel division compared to the others? It's just going to take discipline to get through the schedule. And the biggest thing is discipline to maintain the protocols and maintain everybody's safety, because that's the thing that can derail the whole season. I'm ready.